Eye contact with members of your audience is a vital element in ensuring that your message is being received and understood. Alas, many speakers focus either on their notes (or worse, their script, which they read head-down) or on their slides. You should aim to make eye contact for more than half of the time you are speaking. I advise aiming for at least ninety per cent if you want to make a real impression.
Eye contact is not just about paying respect to your audience. It's also a very good way of seeing whether they understand what you are saying. If you are looking directly at them, you will easily be able to detect either nods and smiles of understanding, or frowns and head-shaking showing disagreement or confusion. In the latter case, you need to change what you say, or the way you're saying it.
If you are working from a prepared script, and there is little time to rehearse, there is a technique you can use which still allows you to have eye contact while you are speaking. Known as the "Bowman Technique", it was used very successfully by the great speech coach Lee Bowman to improve the delivery style of many public figures and politicians, including many US Presidents.
It works like this:
- Look down at your script and read a couple of sentences
- Look up at the audience and deliver those sentences. You don't need to be word-for-word. It's the meaning that matters
- Repeat until the end of the speech